Thursday, February 4, 2010

The Book of Eli (Warning: Here Be Spoilers!)

After reading a review in the Dallas Observer, I thought the premise seemed interesting: In a post-apocalyptic America, a man named Eli (Denzel Washington), in possession of the only remaining copy of the Bible, has to protect it, using bad-ass fighting skills and gratuitous violence, from those who would use it for corrupt ends. This brought up all sorts of questions: Why does this particular guy have the only Bible? Was he chosen by God or man? How on earth could every Bible but one be destroyed, and why? And just how awesome are these fight scenes? Will there be swords? (I love swords.)

My questions were answered. (Eli had a sword, and it was fantastic.) It was fun and interesting; I love a good post-apocalyptic story, and this one had some high points. But troubling issues were brought up.

I was totally with Eli right up until the end, when he delivered the Bible to the unknown place to which God had been leading him, and it turns out to be (wait for it) San Francisco. More specifically, Alcatraz. That's right, the protective fortress of the Word of God is a former notorious prison, on an island adjacent to a city so self-important, pretentious, proud, and morally relativistic it makes Gomorrah look like Grover's Corners.

I wasn't too surprised. Throughout the film, characters had mentioned that all Bibles had been destroyed because many blamed the apocalypse on the Book. I rolled my eyes a little, but only a little. I wanted to see where this was going. I shrugged it off, but remained wary.

Back to Alcatraz: the last bastion of learning, art, and culture is secreted away inside the actual prison. I was reminded of descriptions of medieval monastic life, where monk-scribes faithfully copied by hand the works of Greek and Roman masters, carrying out by candlelight the thankless task of preserving civilization. (To this day we accuse the Church of eschewing or proscribing learning, literature, art, and science, when She almost single-handedly preserved these things through the Dark Ages.)

I wondered if the allusion to monasticism was intentional, and if so, why make the "monastery" a prison? But no matter.

The ostensible leader of the cultural enclave inside Alcatraz is an aging fellow (Malcolm McDowell) with long white hair and the loose, monochromatic clothing of a guru. He looks and speaks like a Berkeley professor, expressing interest in Eli's claim that he has the last copy of the Bible, but no more than he would in, say, the last Complete Works of Shakespeare. There is no adoration, no religious awe. But I think the point is the world has "moved on" to the point where, for our own safety, we are "beyond that now." That's what I was getting.

I will fast forward to the last shot of the film, in order not to completely give away the ending. Now, keep in mind that the film has "proven" to us that Eli is a servant of God, that he had divine protection, abilities, and insight, and that God Himself led Eli to the last Bible and intervened so that he could carry it safely to (ahem) Alcatraz. Keep that in mind.

The last shot: the white-haired hippie Berkeley professor places the Bible on a shelf between the Torah and the Koran.

That's it.

It wasn't placed above them, or on a shelf by itself. It was placed between them. And the Torah and the Bible were not a little bit separate from the Koran. They were all pushed right together. Hmmm.

If the rest of the film had been about a regular guy using his own guts and brains and skills to get the Bible somewhere, this ending would have been appropriate. But instead we had a Messenger of God, divinely led, protected and propelled by miracles, all so that this Book could be saved. And this Book, once it is saved, is placed on a shelf between the Torah and the Koran, which is obviously meant to symbolize that these faiths are interrelated and none is greater than the other.

I still haven't figured out if this was an unintentional case of being ideologically inconsistent, or an intentional one, because either way it is inconsistent.

One might argue that the same God is the God of the people of all three of these books, but then why wasn't the film about all three of the books being shepherded through the valley of darkness, instead of just the One?

I was disappointed. For a while I was cautiously optimistic, believing that I was watching a film about God, and not as a concept synonymous with "luv" or "tolerance" or "being nice," but as a real Personality, a true Deity with an agenda, acting in history through a messenger. How refreshing, I thought. How, well, Biblical! Like in the Old Testament, God was present through affliction, torment, providence, grace, lust, women, bloodshed, and death. Like in the Old Testament, God did not require great genius of his hero, only great faith.

But that ending took all the bite out of the story. It contradicted everything that went before it, denying the holiness and divinity of the Book it just spent nearly two hours establishing, never mind that the Book itself claims holiness and divine inspiration.

Does it make you think of human history, of our own journey toward the end of things? Humans imagine an Apocalypse, but we are so proud we can only imagine that after the dust settles and the ash falls, everything goes on as usual, that God gets put back on a shelf and we continue working towards "true" enlightenment.

Two lines from the Book come to me now:

"Woe to you who cry 'Peace! Peace!' when there is no peace."

And, "I come not to bring peace but a sword." The Lord Himself said that.

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